By Mark Jurgena
When you earn all-state honors in high school, an NCAA championship in basketball and get selected in the NBA Draft, most people would try to make a career out of basketball, then again most people aren’t like 1950 Collinsville alumnus Charlie Kraak.
In 1955, Kraak was embarking on his commitment to Uncle Sam courtesy of his time in the ROTC at Indiana instead of signing a contract with the Ft. Wayne Pistons.
“He had the four-year commitment to serve in the Army, then we married and we enjoyed it so much we decided together just to spend 30 years (in the Army) and it was wonderful. We had a great, great career,” said his widow Shirley (nee Russell) Kraak from her home in Florida last week.
He served stints both overseas and stateside in the Military Police ending his career as a full bird colonel.
“One assignment we had was in Mannheim, Germany, Mannheim-Heidelberg area, and he was the CID Commander for all of Europe I think that was really the highlight,” Mrs. Kraak said.
The CID is actually the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. According to their website CID, “is responsible for conducting criminal investigations in which the Army is, or may be, a party of interest.”
Her favorite assignment was a stateside adventure.
“My favorite was Ft. Bragg, North Carolina when he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne. The esprit de corps there was absolutely wonderful. The bands would march up and down on the streets every morning and it was just full of fun. It was just wonderful. Of course I didn’t have to jump out of the airplanes, he did,” she said with a laugh.
While all of his assignments during the Cold War were certainly essential, one of his most important occurred during his time at the Pentagon where he worked on the POW/MIA Task Force helping to bring home captured U.S. military and civilian personnel from Vietnam.
Mrs. Kraak confirmed that was in 1973. According to a 2015 article by Lori S. Tagg for the U.S. Army website about Operation Homecoming, there were 591 American POWs released at this time. One of those listed by the New York Times in March of 1973 was Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain who would become a U.S. Senator and run for the presidency.
Mrs. Kraak, also a 1950 graduate of Collinsville High School, has a connection to the White House as well.
“I worked for 20 years in the White House in the Greetings Department and I loved every minute of it. It was fantastic! I worked the Easter egg rolls, I guided tourists around for the Christmas decorations and it was wonderful!” she said.
She worked for four presidents including Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Charlie and Shirley, who were married for 59 years, never dated during their CHS days but eventually got together during one of his summer breaks from Indiana.
“It was full of adventure and lots of happiness,” Mrs. Kraak said.
This life borne of opportunities through basketball, seems impossible when looking at most of his high school career. As a junior he was a backup center at Collinsville and coach Vergil Fletcher rarely played more than five guys.
He took advantage of his one big opportunity that year.
In the sectional semifinal game against Jerseyville, Kahok leading scorer Norm Schaulat injured his ankle in pregame and was ineffective. Kraak came off the bench to score 20 points and help CHS to the victory.
The 1949-50 season opened up with questions surrounding CHS. The St. Louis Star-Times reported that Collinsville had lost seven of their regulars from the year before. To replace Schaulat, coach Fletcher was counting on 6’ 4” center Jerry Lee. However, Lee enlisted in the Army instead, leaving an even bigger hole to fill.
Re-enter the understudy Kraak to fill the vacancy. The 6’ 4” center helped the Kahoks to a 10-2 mark in the Southwestern Conference tying Wood River for the conference crown. It was Collinsville’s fifth straight crown and seventh in eighth years. Kraak led the SWC in scoring at 16.9 per game in conference play.
“He was just an excellent young man,” said Bill Jokerst last week. “You couldn’t want a nicer boy to be a student with, graduate high school with because he just had good qualities. He never argued about anything and (on the floor) he just kept getting better and better as he played.”
Collinsville made it back to the state tournament for the eighth time in 1950.
In the regional they had to settle the score with the SWC co-champs beating them 53-42 in the title contest.
Along the way they beat Alton 65-38 and Roxana 54-46.
Kraak contributed 69 points to the regional cause including 31 against the Shells.
After Kraak’s 20 points helped CHS win a sectional semifinal game over Madison (Dunbar), they were one game from state. To get there they needed to beat 26-1 Dupo.
The Tigers were ranked ahead of the Kahoks in the final UPI poll and had won 19 straight games. They had registered the biggest upset in the area when they stalled their way to a 12-8, yes 12-8, win over powerful St. Louis (Beaumont).
Collinsville made sure no slow down would occur as they jumped out to an early lead and cruised past the Tigers 56-47 to qualify for state.
“Charles Kraak (who else?) gave the Collinsville quintet the needed spark in the first half when he scored 16 of his evening’s total of 23 points,” reported the Edwardsville Intelligencer.
At Huff Gym in Champaign, there were two main stories surrounding the state tourney.
Everyone wanted to know if defending state champion Mt. Vernon could win again, this time in undefeated fashion. Second, should the Rams and Kahoks meet again, who would prove to be the better player, future University of Illinois 6’5” forward Max Hooper or Kraak.
Mt. Vernon had won 37-30 in Collinsville in late January. Hooper had scored 18 points in that game while Kraak managed only three field goals.
Despite this, Jokerst maintains that Kraak was better than Hooper.
“I think that he hadn’t had any experience at all playing in the varsity games up to his senior year. The only game I think he ever got into was the game against Jerseyville where he scored 20 points. He just kept getting better every game his senior year and I don’t think Max was getting any better. Max was a good player his junior year just as well as his senior year, but I don’t think he could’ve handled Kraak his senior year,” Jokerst said.
In the opening game, Kewanee proved no match for CHS as the Kahoks throttled the Boilers 69-52 behind Kraak’s 28 points.
Game two of the state tourney saw a much tougher opponent in the Quincy Blue Devils. Quincy came in at #13 in the AP poll and #9 in the UPI poll.
A free throw by Kraak to break a 34-34 tie in the 3rd quarter sparked CHS to a 54-46 state quarterfinal victory. He knocked down 22 points in that game.
“Again it was the accuracy of the agile young Charlie Kraak that was the difference. He is a lot of basketball player,” said the game article in the Bloomington Pantagraph.
In their semifinal game, Collinsville had a ten point lead at half and led by as many as 13 points in the 2nd half only to see that lead fade to one point late in the game.
According to game accounts in the Decatur Daily Review, Collinsville was whistled for a charging foul with :50 seconds to play. Under high school rules in 1950, Danville was given a free throw and the ball at center court. Bob Wright sank the charity toss to tie the score at 60-60.
Wright got the inbounds pass and the guard held the ball until the :10 second mark. He took a shot from the edge of the free throw circle but missed, however Danville’s Ron Rigoni tipped the missed shot into the basket to give the Maroons a 62-60 win.
Kraak again had a stellar game as he scored 29 points. He had 79 points in three games. The record at state for four games was 96.
In the 3rd place game, Elgin shot 59.3% from the field to beat CHS 81-65. Kraak had 15 points and the Kahoks finished 25-7.
He completed the four game tourney with 94 points, just shy of the record. Hooper would eclipse the record by finishing with 98 points to lead the Rams to their undefeated state title.
After the season Kraak was named to the All-State Tourney team and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch All-District team. He was also runner-up in the voting for the Star-Times Player of the Year.
He picked Indiana University as his college choice over Illinois and Saint Louis.
Instead of joining Hooper in Champaign or Schaulat at SLU, he joined fellow Kahok alumnus Sam Miranda in Bloomington.
After finishing fourth in the Big Ten in Miranda’s senior campaign of 1951-52, Kraak broke into the starting lineup of Branch McCracken’s “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” his junior season.
IU went 17-1 in Big Ten play to break the two-year grip on the conference by Illinois.
In mid-January of 1953 the #6 ranked Hoosiers hosted the #4 ranked Fighting Illini. IU came out on top in that game 74-70 in double overtime. Kraak is listed as having zero points in the contest, Hooper had three.
Indiana wrapped up their first outright Big Ten title six weeks later in Champaign with a 91-79 win. Kraak netted six points on the evening, Hooper had five.
IU climbed to #1 in the polls heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Kraak scored six points as IU escaped their opening round game in Chicago with an 82-80 win over DePaul and scored eight in their 79-66 win over Notre Dame to send them to the Final Four at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
In the national semifinal, the Hoosiers beat LSU 80-67. Kraak tossed in nine points to help beat the Tigers.
In the 1953 NCAA Championship game, Indiana knocked off the defending champion Kansas 69-68. Hall of Famer Bob Leonard knocked down the back end of two free throws with 30 seconds to play to lead IU to the title.
Kraak netted 17 points in the title game over coach Phog Allen’s Jayhawks.
Will Grimsley of the Associated Press noted on the IU win that they had, “a great clutch performer in Charley Kraak.”
Kraak would gain further acclaim in the Grimsley article seen across the United States.
“Indiana’s veteran coach Branch McCracken credits Kraak with providing the drive that led to victory. The Collinsville, Ill., boy was the leading rebounder, a terrific feeder and himself scored 17 points.”
The Hoosiers, who only graduated one senior from their roster headed into the 1953-54 season, would win another Big Ten title outright with a 12-2 mark. They finished 20-4 and never fell below #3 in the polls.
However they lost three of their last eight games including a 65-64 loss to Notre Dame in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
One of Kraak’s biggest games his senior year was during an 86-50 win at rival Purdue. He put in 11 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.
Coach McCracken summed up Kraak’s career the best in January of 1954
“Kraak has been a wild man on the bank boards and the best defense you can have is to get possession of the ball. He makes a world of difference to this team and the person who gauges his value by scoring alone is overlooking his most valuable contribution to the team,” McCracken told the Terre Haute Tribune.
After the 1953-54 season Kraak was drafted by the Pistons in the 6th round of the NBA Draft. Three of his Hoosier teammates were also drafted in ‘54 along with another in 1955.
But Kraak was headed for a stellar career in the Army. He would get a Master’s degree in Public Safety from Michigan State. He would also graduate from the Command & General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Charles Kraak passed away on February 16, 2014 and is buried at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Fla.
His wife survives as do his two children Karol of Virginia and Gregory of Arizona, along with several grandchildren.
“He was a wonderful husband and a wonderful father,” said Mrs. Kraak.